March 21 – October 25, 2020
Moderna Museet, STOCKHOLM
In early January, it was sadly reported that the American artist John Baldessari had died at the age of 88. Moderna Museet has long been planning an exhibition spanning Baldessari’s entire career, and on March 21 a presentation of some thirty works opened in Stockholm. John Baldessari’s influence on the art world extends over decades and generations, and the exhibition at Moderna Museet will be the first in Sweden to present his art on a greater scale. For over five decades, John Baldessari (1931–2020) probed the relationship between image and text and what arises when the two are brought together.
Baldessari was born in National City, California, a city located fifteen minutes from the Mexican border. His parents were both immigrants to the USA – his mother from Denmark and his father from Austria. John Baldessari studied to be a teacher and taught art at schools around San Diego before being invited to teach at the newly founded art academy CalArts outside Los Angeles in 1970. In his professional role as teacher, Baldessari had an impact on several generations of artists, and former students includes artists like Mike Kelley, David Salle and Tony Oursler.
By the mid-1960s, John Baldessari had come to realize that a photographic image or written text could better express his artistic intentions than a representational painting, and his artistic practice developed in a new direction. John Baldessari worked ceaselessly in his investigation of what art is.
Inspired by a comment by the abstract painter Al Held that “all Conceptual art is just pointing at things” John Baldessari made the series Commissioned Paintings (1969) in which he asked a friend to literally point at objects or events that he found interesting. The action that had been pointed out was then photographed and a number of amateur painters were commissioned to make copies of the photographs. These reproductions include the text “A painting by“, followed by the respective painter’s name clearly written by a professional sign painter. There are no traces of John Baldessari himself in any of the works in the series – a commentary on Abstract Expressionism’s conception of the artwork as a direct expression of the artist’s emotional life and genius.
In an ad placed in a local newspaper on July 24, 1970, John Baldessari announced that he had had all the artworks in his possession created between May 1953 and March 1966 destroyed at a crematorium. The result was a total of ten boxes of ashes – with some of it collected in book-shaped urns bearing the text “John Anthony Baldessari May 1953–March 1966”. Baldessari described this act as a way of liberating himself from all his accumulated art. The exhibition at Moderna Museet includes the work Cremation Project (1970) with its urn containing the remains of thirteen years of creative work. In the video work I Am Making Art (1971), that will also be shown in the exhibition, John Baldessari moves stiffly in front of the camera while repeating the sentence “I am making art” emphasizing the words differently every time – a nod at Conceptual Art and the notion that all actions can be art.
John Baldessari has had over two hundred solo exhibitions since his debut in 1960 and participated in some thousand group exhibitions worldwide. The exhibition at Moderna Museet is the first in Sweden to present his body of work on a large scale and includes some 30 works from different chapters of his long and extensive career. Baldessari has received a number of awards, including the National Medal of Arts (2014), a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale (2009), the Archives of American Art Medal (2007), and the Lifetime Achievement Award from Americans for the Arts (2005).
“John Baldessari has been of immense importance to Conceptual Art” – says Matilda Olof-Ors, the exhibition’s curator. “With an underlying streak of humor and irony, he time and again challenged the prevailing norms and notions of what art is“. The exhibition is supported by Morgan Stanley.